2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe Review: The Ultimate Identity Crisis

The new FWD-based 2 Series is surprisingly good. But will the BMW faithful ever get over it?

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2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe Review: The Ultimate Identity Crisis © 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe Review: The Ultimate Identity Crisis

Back in 2014, BMW did the unthinkable and launched a front-wheel-drive car in Europe: the 2 Series Active Tourer, a small, minivan-like thing built on the Mini Countryman's platform. Oh, how the faithful rended their garments in hysterics. How could makers of the Ultimate Driving Machines sell out with a front-wheel-drive vehicle in its lineup? How could it possibly get away with such bold disregard for history, lineage, and fun? This will be the end of BMW!

Half a decade later, BMW is still here—and still promising driver engagement, despite the fact that its American showroom has since added a couple of front-drivers in the X1 and X2 crossovers. In fact, it's almost daring us to complain by tripling down on its transverse engine offerings here with the new 2020 BMW 228i and M235i xDrive Gran Coupe.

This slightly tall four-door might ride on the same platform as the X1 and X2, and it might benefit from the lowered expectations that come with an entry-level model, but it still needs to impress. Even though you won't be able to get the straight FWD 2 Series Gran Coupe on these shores, this AWD xDrive model will still be people's first taste of front-drive-based BMW sedan, something that's been considered sacrilege for so long.

And after a day-long test in Portugal earlier this month, I think they're going to like it.

The 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $46,495
  • Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder | 8-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 301 hp @ 5,000-6,250 RPM
  • Torque: 332 lb-ft @ 1,750-4,500 RPM
  • 0-60 mph (w/ M Performance Pkg.): 4.6 seconds
  • Top Speed: 155 mph (electronically limited)
  • Curb Weight: 3,461 lbs
  • The Promise: A new entry-level, FWD-based sport sedan that's just as fun as BMW's rear-drive cars.
  • The Delivery: Decent looks, good power, and AWD make for a better-than-expected time. 
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Front-Drive Can Be Your Friend

If you’re reading this, your first (and maybe only) question is: “Does it suck?" [Ed. note: That was certainly mine.] The answer is a qualified no. 

I've had a chance to sample BMW’s xDrive system in performance cars like the M5 and M8 Competition. In those models, the system is rear-drive biased with the ability to send up to 100% power to the rear wheels. And it is awesome. 

Unfortunately, the xDrive system found in the M235i is not the same; because of the transverse placement of the Gran Coupe’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder motor, a Haldex-type system is used that primarily shuffles power to the front wheels in normal conditions. Disappointing to those looking for a drift mode, but BMW’s electronically operated rig is actually more responsive than the Haldex AWD systems from competitors like Audi.

Speaking of motors, the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe is packing a potent one. With the turbo inline-four engine putting out 301 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque, it’s the most powerful 4 cylinder motor in BMW’s line up. That’s enough grunt to move the 3,461-pound Gran Coupe to 60mph in 4.7 seconds; call it 4.6 if you tick the box for the optional M Performance package with its turbo overboost function. Top speed is electronically limited at 155 mph, which is not nothing in a car that's smaller than a Toyota Corolla. The 228i model has a less-ferocious version of the same block with 228 horsepower (hey, the number means something!) and gets to 60 mph in six seconds flat.

In the M235i, that power flows through an eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission with an integrated Torsen limited-slip differential standard. With the optional active cruise package, the transmission will gather information from the navigation system and cruise control sensors to “see” the road conditions ahead and make sure it's always in the best gear for the situation—that includes dropping into a lower gear when it senses a twisty section of road ahead.

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The system also syncs with the Start-Stop function to deactivate it when you come to a brief stop at an intersection, a feature that was very much appreciated while navigating Lisbon’s narrow city streets.

Wheeling the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe

When pushed hard on the super narrow twisty mountain roads that surround Lisbon, the Gran Coupe is very planted and solid. BMW saw fit to equip the M235i with a host of suspension enhancements befitting the car's M-Sport badge, including sports suspension, a strut tower tie bar, front subframe bracing and variable M Sport steering that has a tighter ratio for sharper turn-in response.

Also on the list of enhancements is BMW’s new wheel slip mitigation system called ARB, which probably stands for something German. Basically, this system puts the AWD slip controller directly into the engine control unit to shorten the signal path and quicken the response time when dividing power between the axles. It works in conjunction with a yaw management system called BMW Performance Control that brakes the inner wheels on a turn to combat power-induced understeer.

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Further helping fight understeer are the M235i's standard Torsen limited-slip differential between the front wheels and optional 19-inch rims with 235/35 R19 tires (225/40 R18s are fitted as standard). The pairing was welcome as I hustled the car through the never-ending series of switchbacks littering our test route in the hills surrounding Lisbon and discovered it's a surprisingly agile dance partner despite its sort of chunky appearance.

With the DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) setting engaged, the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe is given substantially more freedom to slide around before the electronic anti-fun controls kick in to ruin the day. However, even without the computer helping mask any handling weaknesses, the car never felt anything but agile and responsive to steering inputs. 

Though as you'd expect, the Gran Coupe performs nothing like its rear-drive M240i Coupe sibling. Turn-in is quick for the Gran Coupe, but it doesn’t come close to matching the feel and responsiveness that the actual Coupe displays. Coming off the corners the xDrive system pulls like a freight train, allowing the driver to commit to full throttle far more aggressively than would otherwise be physically possible without the extra set of driven wheels. However, there’s an increased hint of understeer as you approach the limit that the M240i simply does not exhibit.

Does this ruin it? Not at all. The M235i Gran Coupe is fun in its own way, something like a small Audi fighter in how much of its performance comes down to the AWD system. It’s just not the experience you may be expecting in a car wearing the BMW Roundel and an M Sport badge.

FWD Platform = FWD Looks

As polarizing as the drivetrain might be to enthusiasts, the styling of the 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe (man, I'm getting tired of typing that) isn’t likely to calm any nerves. Its upright posture and short hood are a huge departure from the lithe 2 Series Coupe, which seemed to be the last classically simple BMW out there. If you've ever heard someone talk about the body proportions that come with rear-wheel drive versus front-wheel drive setups, the difference between these two like-sized cars is a perfect example.

The Gran Coupe is part of BMW's new design language, and while it's handsome from some angles, from others it can look more than a little Corolla-ish. The sizing doesn't help: it's short from bumper to bumper (178.5 in), narrow (70.9 in), and relatively tall (55 in). But if the exterior verges on Toyota, the generous interior is all BMW. It continues the company's tradition of great cabins that are extremely pleasant places to pass the time. Whether you're taking a quick run to Whole Foods or a multi-state road trip, the interior cabin space just works. Unless you need more than 12 cubic feet of trunk space.

Adding to the stellar seat and control ergonomics is BMW's infotainment system, fronted by a 10.25-inch high definition center-mounted display and an identically sized screen for the driver's instrument cluster if you spring for the "BMW Live Cockpit Professional" option. The combination of the two is all you'll ever need, but add to that the optional 9.2-inch color heads-up display and you start to border on information overload. But not necessarily in a bad way.

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In either trim, the 2 Series Gran Coupe comes standard with a set of driver assistance features grouped under BMW's "Active Driving Assistant" marketing mumbo jumbo. That comes with pedestrian-detecting forward emergency braking, blind spot monitor, lane departure warning, parking sensors, and rear cross-traffic alert for the backup camera. Other, cheaper manufacturers have long since allowed this kind of tech to trickle down to economy cars, so it's heartening to see BMW—they of the since-eliminated Apple CarPlay subscription fee—recognizing the need to offer some of this stuff as standard in its entry sedan.

The only issues with an otherwise sterling interior were a few cheap-looking trim bits which were a bit out of place on a vehicle approaching $50,000. And don't get me started on the hyperactively attentive Intelligent Personal Assistant (read: Siri-like voice control) who likes to jump in the moment anyone within a 100-yard radius even thinks about uttering the word “BMW”. The last one probably isn’t a big deal to the average consumer; seriously, how often do you say BMW or anything that sounds like it on a daily basis? But if you're talking to another car person, or even showing your new ride to an uncaring significant other, it's going to come up, and this robot butler will be all too ready to respond.

The good news is that the bright minds at BMW have included an option to give your assistant a different moniker, eliminating the embarrassment of shouting your car’s make out loud over and over. I think I’d name mine Rufus. 

Identity Crisis

The problem with the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe isn’t that it's a bad car. It’s not. It’s a fully capable, sporty, entry-level luxury sedan. What it’s not is a traditional BMW. I mean, how can it be? 

BMW has a long and storied history as a manufacturer of rear-wheel-drive performance cars. And the xDrive Gran Coupe does not fit that description, no matter how much corporate synergy is backing it up. Would it be an objectively better time if it was a small, RWD rocket with a twin-turbo V6 stuffed under the hood? Sure. But that's not what BMW's going for here.

The best way to evaluate the Gran Coupe is to peek around at its nearest competitors—other compact FWD-AWD sport sedans, of which there are precious few trying to play at this level. The Audi A3/S3 came to mind quite often, and it’s obvious why: Both cars are German-engineered four-door sedans (sorry to all the Bavarian marketing guys, but the M235i is not a Coupe, Gran or not), both have Haldex AWD systems, both make a bunch of power from 2.0-liter four-cylinder motors (292 hp for the Audi and 301 hp for the BMW), and both are identically priced at $45,500 plus destination.

When placed up against the S3, the Gran Coupe beats it handily. As an entry-level banger, it’s got more power, a better interior and it’s far better equipped. More importantly from where I'm sitting, with a much better chassis and better tuning of its Haldex system, the BMW will drive circles around the Audi. 

So is the 2020 M235i xDrive Grand Coupe a good car? Absolutely—maybe just not the good car you’re expecting.

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